The music on the engrossing debut album by the Folks Below wasn’t so much written as it was excavated — or so goes the origin story offered by bandleader Holly Brewer, explaining the concept behind this quiet tempest of folky ruminations and dystopian prophecy.
These 11 songs live within the alternate history Brewer has explored at length with her other band, HUMANWINE. The elaborate mythology tells the story of Vinland, a futuristic society where rebellious free-thinkers aim to subvert a totalitarian state. (The place-name is borrowed from Viking history.)
The new album, self-released in May, is said to contain newly recorded versions of songs that were found embedded within clay plates in an abandoned gathering spot of those subversive rebels.
“I can’t get out of Vinland. It’s like ‘Lord of the Rings.’ We made this whole world and I can’t think outside that box because it's just so huge," Brewer says, on the phone from the one room where she can get passable phone reception in her Westminster, Vt., home. She estimates there are only 500 people in the world who are fully clued in to the self-referential back story that frames her music — including dedicated fans who eagerly unscramble codes in album cover art — but estimates the number will rise once
HUMANWINE co-leader Mat McNiss completes a graphic novel based in the world. (Images from the project, set to music, are available online.)
The Folks Below is an acoustic trio culled from longtime HUMANWINE collaborators. Though the songs mine the thematic material first sketched by that band, it seemed to Brewer that they stood on their own as a separate dispatch from the fringe. The band plays The Red Room at Cafe 939 on Saturday.
With Brewer on acoustic guitar, Nate Greenslit playing drums, and Paul Dilley handling bass duties, the Folks Below create a low rumble, urgent and epic, that feels entirely separate from the aesthetic of the ongoing Americana boom. The songs are laced with darkness and defiance, with echoing resonances buried within. “Ask Me” sounds like the standoffish rebuff of a prying outsider, until the stakes are raised with its chilling last line: “We’re not going to tell you where we buried your taxman.” “Rope Climb” is a rallying cry aimed at a desperate compatriot, urging not to “pretend that there’s nothing left to defend.” Throughout, Brewer’s assured vocals range from guttural utterances to high-registered flights of wordless expression.
Though not overly prolific, HUMANWINE had some success, nabbing the Boston Music Award for best new local act in 2006. But Brewer, who hops around the country with nomadic verve — she’s even spent some time housed in a retired school bus retrofitted into a living space complete with bare-bones recording studio — left Jamaica Plain in favor of a more rural milieu. The new album’s sound reflects that shift, she says, though planned follow-ups will mine electronic and metal-influenced territories.
“For me to be alive and to not write songs about how much I hate everything, I have to be in the country, really far away from the city,” she explains, speaking in a bright, rapid cadence peppered with casual F-bombs. “I have 250 newsfeeds that come in all day and I’m a huge sponge when I live in the city. Then when I come out and live in the country, my concerns are that the seven chickens aren’t getting eaten by weasels and that there’s gas in the tractor.”
Owing to her mix-and-match fashion sense and general attitude, Brewer quips that she can’t drink from a paper cup in public without strangers trying to drop loose change into it. She got her most distinctive tattoo, a repeating pattern that starts at her sternum and works its way up her neck and onto her chin, when she was a teenager. It was intended as a physical manifestation of an artistic breakthrough. She “found her voice,” she explains, after years of early vocal training aimed at a career in musical theater, and wanted to celebrate that fact.
Greenslit has an atypical resume for a rock drummer, with his doctorate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and day job as a lecturer at Harvard University. He says his interest in anthropology and the history of science makes him a good fit to work in the world of Brewer’s imagination.
“I’m interested in how people create worlds for themselves to make sense out of their life and understand their place in it. So I guess that sort of mind-set made the kind of mythological world-making that Holly has been into more appealing,” he says.
It seems appropriate that she fleshes out her songs with other musicians in a way that’s less musically technical than literary, Greenslit adds. “She’ll have an image or a theme in her mind. She’ll say that this part gets evil, and that’s my musical instruction.”
The album reflects an overall mood Brewer set out to create.
“The whole idea of it was rising up from the underground, but not like, ‘Oh, I’ve finally gotten my YouTube video viral’,” she explains. “It’s not about fame. It’s about that moment when you just see the grass growing through the cracks in the tar, just that bubbling and cracking. It’s about that slow build, the slow boil.”Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.